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Af-Pak focus: Shadow of the rocketmen

Imran Waak and Ataullah Khan
As border tensions rise between Pakistan and Afghanistan after recent clashes in Nangarhar Province, families displaced by repeated rocketings in Kunar remain caught in the middle.
10.05.2013  |  Asadabad/Islamabad
A hole blown by a rocket in the roof of a school in the Dangam District centre, Kunar Province. Main photo: An unexploded mortar round and rocket parts found in Dangam District (Photos: Waak) 
A hole blown by a rocket in the roof of a school in the Dangam District centre, Kunar Province. Main photo: An unexploded mortar round and rocket parts found in Dangam District (Photos: Waak) 

Near the main street of Asadabad, the capital of Kunar Province, Masiullah sits against a sack of flour, peeling oranges and chatting to his small daughter about her day, the chilly weather, about anything other than the horror she recently witnessed.   

“Five members of our family were killed and injured when a rocket from the Pakistani side of the border hit our house," says Masiullah, 30, who is from Zorr Brawol village in the Dangam District, by the border with Pakistan. 

Like many terrified families in the area, they packed up and moved to another village outside Asadabad until the cross-border bombardments finally stop and they can go home.

According to Kunar Governor Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi, 8,800 rockets were fired at Dangam and five more districts of the province from Pakistani territory from March 2012 to the end of last year. The rockets killed more than 100 civilians and displaced hundreds more, he said. 

Wahidi's head of security, provincial police commander Matiullah, is more specific about the origin of the projectiles, which are mainly small, portable 107mm rockets. 

There are two types of attacks from Pakistani soil on Kunar province, Matiullah said: “Rockets are directly fired from Pakistani [military] checkpoints; others are fired from Bajaur, Dir, Samar Bagh and the Muskini localities. It is rockets from these areas that caused the most number of deaths and injuries.”

The shelling is not a subject the Pakistani military speaks readily about. Requests for comment about allegedly unprovoked shelling were redirected to the Foreign Ministry, which contests Afghan accounts of the shelling incidents. 

“Terrorists are firing rockets and targeting Pakistan,” said Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry. “On several occasions the firing first came at Pakistan from the other side [of the border] and our people returned fire.” 

Some agreement – but more controversy

The security officer Matiullah said Pakistani refugees fleeing from government military operations in Pakistan’s Swat District had taken refuge in Dangam and other parts of Kunar. Militant elements among them were continuing to attack targets in Pakistan, and the shellings were partly retaliation for this, he said.

He also raised an even more controversial issue, especially in the light of recent developments in Goshta District in Nangarhhar, where Afghan border troops this month stormed and demolished Pakistani installations built in Afghan territory.

“The Pakistani Army wants to expand its area of control into Afghanistan by targeting civilians,” claimed the commander. Pakistani forces had advanced inside Kunar by five kilometres in places, he said.

Encroachment battles

Some of the projectiles inevitably come from insurgent groups operating in the border region. But any fired by either of the governments are eroding cooperation and turning up the heat in public statements..

Motor parts recovered from the remains of exploded 107mm rockets. 

In response to events in Goshta, Afghan President Hamid Karzai even called upon Afghan Taliban to defend their country’s territory from Pakistani aggression. 

The head of the provincial council in Kunar, Mia Hassan Adel, also described the rocketing as part of a greater plan to expand Pakistani control in Afghan border areas. 

“The main reason they fire rockets at us is to advance further into Afghan soil,” agreed Qari Sediqullah, a tribal leader in the Shahi area of Dangam. He claimed Pakistani military posts had appeared as deep as 10 kilometres in Afghan territory.

However, Kunar Governor Wahidi said the Pakistani Army had not advanced into Afghan territory.

Swat migrants in the line of fire 

Tensions are also growing between the local population and migrants from Swat, whether they are complicitly involved in cross-border violence or not.

Another tribal leader, Malik Mozmain, said: "We become helpless in our own villages; these so-called immigrants are taking over everything - they create all the problems. The Pakistani Army targets us, they fire rockets at our homes because they think these migrants fight them back in Pakistan."

For locals in the areas affected by rocketing, daily life is overshadowed by the threat of a sudden impact.

Communities in the area had repeatedly called upon the government to intervene and rethink a settlement plan for the influx of refugees from Swat, Mozmain said. He also expressed concern that the local population had been disarmed by international forces and now had no means to defend itself or drive out militant elements. 

According to provincial council head Adel, the most effective way to defuse the overall situation would be to repatriate all migrants from Swat or resettle them elsewhere in Afghanistan. "If the Afghan government lets these migrants settle in Kunar, they should take them far from the border areas."

But as Pakistani political analyst Saleem Safi notes, “The people who launch attacks are not necessarily stationed in areas close to the border.”

Help for the victims

According to the provincial branch of the Ministry for Refugees and Repatriations (MoRR), more than 600 Afghan families relocated in the past year because of the shelling. The department had provided blankets, propane fuel tanks, kitchen equipment and other items to the affected families, a spokesman said.

But many IDPs say they received no significant assistance. "We cannot survive with one sack of flour and one bottle of cooking oil,” said displaced Dangam resident Ahmadullah, 40, who now lives at his son’s home in Asadabad. “We need a living space and assistance so we can rebuild our lives.”

The governor says they have not been forgotten and that long-term help is coming for more than 500 uprooted families:

“We plan to build a town for these returnees, so that the housing needs of these poor families are addressed,” said Wahidi.

But many want to go back where they are from, and for that to happen, there must be no more rockets.

Two-way misery and deteriorating cooperation

Dangam District, beautiful and serene - between the rocket blasts. 

There are innocent victims on the other side of the border too, due to the often unexplained exchanges of fire that occur throughout the region.

“I still remember how a car stopped in front of our house and uniformed people with big boots brought the coffin of my brother, wrapped in the our national flag," said 34-year-old Saidagul. His younger brother Hazerat Nabi was killed four years ago by a rocket near a border checkpost in Pakistan's Mohmand Agency. The projectile was fired from inside Afghanistan, he said.

Meanwhile, the effects of cross-border bombardments on bilateral relations have been pronounced in recent weeks. Last month, the Afghan military cancelled a visit by 11 Afghan National Army officers to Pakistan, where they were scheduled to take part in joint exercises in the southwestern city of Quetta. Officials said the trip was cancelled due to "unacceptable Pakistani shelling" of Afghanistan's eastern mountains.